Vinod Kumar Saranathan

Science (Evolutionary Photonics and Ornithology)

Assistant Professor


View Curriculum Vitae

Assistant Professor Vinod Saranathan received his bachelors in Physics with a minor in Philosophy from Ohio Wesleyan University, where he honed his life-long interest in ornithology. Funded by a Dillon and Mary Ripley Graduate Fellowship, he earned his MS in 2007 and a PhD in 2011 from Yale University, in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, where he studied structural colour production in birds with Professor Richard Prum. During his dissertation, he established synchrotron Small Angle X-ray Scattering (SAXS) as a precise, high-throughput analytical technique for assaying complex 3D biophotonic nanostructures. Subsequently, Asst Prof Saranathan was a Royal Society Newton Fellow at the Edward Grey Institute of Field Ornithology, Department of Zoology, University of Oxford, where he interrogated the nanostructural basis and consequences of fine structural colour variation within and between local Oxfordshire populations of blue tits. At Oxford, he was elected to an Edward P. Abraham Cephalosporin Junior Research Fellowship at Linacre College. Recently, Asst Prof Saranathan was a Research Fellow in the Division of Physics and Applied Physics, School of Physical and Mathematical Sciences, at the Nanyang Technological University, studying the theoretical photonics of bio-inspired, chiral meta-materials.

Asst Prof Saranathan specialises in the study of structural colouration, responsible for vivid hues such as blues, violets and greens in both extant and extinct animals. Such colours are ubiquitous in nature and form an important part of the phenotype of animals as they are often used in inter- and intra-sexual communication and camouflage. His integrative research interests lie at the interface of evolutionary and organismal biology, animal behaviour, structural biology, soft matter physics, materials science, (bio)photonics, and biomimetics. Specifically, he is interested in what he has termed “Evolutionary Photonics” – a precise, holistic understanding of the biophotonic nanostructures underlying organismal structural colouration (both iridescent and non-iridescent colours).

Asst Prof Saranathan is thus broadly focused on the integration of evolutionary and developmental biology and soft matter physics to inform fundamental questions from animal signalling to the bio-inspired or biomimetic design of novel, eco-friendly, functional materials by mimicking the ‘green’ water-based intra-cellular self-assembly processes. Towards this end, he is keen on developing and applying an ‘–omics’ approach to unravel the precise developmental basis of animal structural colouration in non-model organisms.

Asst Prof Saranathan is interested in comparative, macro-evolutionary studies on the evolution of iridescent and non-iridescent structural colouration in birds and insects, questions that are well-poised to be presently addressed given the recent phylo-genomics driven progress in avian and insect systematics. He is also focused on establishing field research on structurally coloured bird species in Singapore and South East Asia with local and regional collaborators.

Asst Prof Saranathan has pioneered the use of synchrotron Small Angle X-ray Scattering (SAXS) as a precise, high-throughput tool for the structural characterisation of biophotonic nanostructures. He regularly uses electron microscopy (both scanning and transmission), focused ion-beam milling and is keen on applying cryo-EM, Raman spectroscopy, fibre diffraction, X-ray reflectometry as well as theoretical optical modelling approaches for the structural and functional characterisation of biophotonic materials.

Selected Publications:

B. D. Wilts*, and V. Saranathan*. 2018. A Literal Elytral Rainbow: Tunable Structural Colors Using Single Diamond Biophotonic Crystals in Pachyrrhynchus congestus Weevils. Small 1802328, In Press.
*Lead Corresponding Authors

Saranathan, V. “Topology of minimal surface biophotonic nanostructures in arthropods”, in Springer Series in Solid-State Sciences: The Role of Topology in Materials (S. Gupta and A. Saxena Eds.) pp.275-290 (Springer, Dordrecht, 2018)

Saranathan, V., A. E. Seago, A. Sandy, S. Narayanan, S. G. J. Mochrie, E. R. Dufresne, H. Cao, C. O. Osuji, and R. O. Prum. 2015. Structural Diversity of Self-Assembled Arthropod Biophotonic Nanostructures Spans Amphiphilic Phase-Space. Nano Letters 15(6): 3735–42 doi:10.1021/acs.nanolett.5b00201

McNamara, M. E.∗, V. Saranathan∗, E. Locatelli, H. Noh, D. E. G. Briggs, P. J. Orr and H. Cao. 2014. Cryptic iridescence in a fossil weevil generated by single diamond photonic crystals. Journal of the Royal Society Interface 11(100):20140736
∗Lead Corresponding Authors

Saranathan, V., J. D. Forster, H. Noh, S. F. Liew, S. G. J. Mochrie, H. Cao, E. R. Dufresne, and R. O. Prum. 2012. Structure and Optical Function of Amorphous Photonic Nanostructures from Avian Feather Barbs: A Compara- tive Small Angle X-ray Scattering (SAXS) Analysis of 230 Bird Species. Journal of the Royal Society Interface 9(75): 2563–80 doi:10.1098/rsif.2012.0191

D’Alba, L., V. Saranathan†, J. A. Clarke, J. Vinther, R. O. Prum and M. D. Shawkey†. 2011. Colour producing β-keratin nanofibres in Blue Penguin (Eudyptula minor) feathers. Biology Letters 7(4): 543–6 doi:10.1098/rsbl.2010.1163
† indicates equal lead contribution

Saranathan, V., C. O. Osuji, S. G. J. Mochrie, H. Noh, S. Narayanan, A. Sandy, E. R. Dufresne, and R. O. Prum. 2010. Structure, Function and Self-Assembly of Single Network Gyroid (I4132) Photonic Crystals In Butterfly Wing Scales. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 107(26): 11676– 11681

Forster, J. D., H. Noh, S. F. Liew, V. Saranathan, C. F. Shreck, L. Yang, J.-G. Park, R. O. Prum, S. G. J. Mochrie, C. S. O’Hern, H. Cao and E. R. Dufresne. 2010. Biomimetic isotropic nanostructures for structural coloration. Advanced Materials 22(26-27):2939–44

Noh, H., S. F. Liew, V. Saranathan, S. G. J. Mochrie, R. O. Prum, E. R. Dufresne, and H. Cao. 2010. How non-iridescent colors are generated by quasi- ordered structures of bird feathers. Advanced Materials 22(26-27): 2871–80 doi:10.1002/adma.200903699

Dufresne, E. R., H. Noh, V. Saranathan, S. Mochrie, H. Cao and R. O. Prum. 2009. Self-Assembly of Amorphous Biophotonic Nanostructures by Phase Separation. Soft Matter 5: 1792–1795

Vinther, J., D. E. G. Briggs, R. O. Prum and V. Saranathan. 2008. The colour of fossil feathers. Biology Letters 4: 522–525

For a complete list of publications, see or visit

Principles of Biophysics (with integrated labs; jointly listed in Life Science and Physical Science majors)
Independent Reading and Research
Quantitative Reasoning
Foundations of Science: Field Ornithology
Just History and Mass Extinctions
Scientific Inquiry